As mentioned on my blog entry from last week, the textbook we are using for the course focuses almost entirely on the Nag Hammadi Library, leaving other sources for Gnosticism relatively unexamined. So we began class this week by redressing this deficiency with an examination of the discoveries made before Nag Hammadi, namely the codices Askew (British Museum, Add. 511; 4th cent.; published in 1851), Bruce (Bodleian Library, Bruce MS 96; 5th cent.; published in 1891), and Berlin (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502; 5th cent.; published in 1955). To these discoveries we owe the existence of the Pistis Sophia, the Books of Jeu, several untitled texts, and copies of the Gospel of Mary, the Sophia Jesus Christ, the Apocryphon of John, and the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles. Though much study has been made of the Berlin Codex (due to its important contents), the Askew and Bruce codices tend to be neglected in the field (note that the Bruce texts are included in the Meyer and Robinson collections but not Askew and Bruce; and none of them appear in Layton’s collection). We discussed also the discovery of the Greek Gospel of Thomas fragments in the excavations at Oxyrhynchus and, only generally, the Manichean and Mandaean texts published in the early twentieth century.
These early discoveries were significant because they provided scholars with the first real firsthand literary productions by, apparently, “Gnostic” Christians. Prior to the publication of these texts, all that was available were the texts excerpted in the works of the heresiologists, and these may not have been transmitted with fidelity. Yet, the texts published prior to the Nag Hammadi find (in Berlin and Askew) only made Gnosticism seem as weird and incomprehensible as the heresiologists claimed.
Fortunately, the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945 provided additional texts to be studied. Denzey Lewis’s textbook offers the basic facts of the discovery—the canonical account, as Mark Goodacre would say—and I went over this with the class, as well as a general description of the codices (13 books, 52 texts, a mix of Christian and “pagan” and perhaps some Jewish material, the contents of the cartonnage in the covers, etc.). Then we viewed a portion of the 1987 BBC documentary The Gnostics, which features an interview with Muhammad Ali al-Samman, the man who claimed to have found the codices. The documentary led into a discussion of Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount’s article, “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices” (JBL 133.2 : 399-419) from this week’s assigned readings, with added comments from Mark Goodacre’s “How Reliable is the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery?” (JSNT 35.4 : 303-22). Both articles challenge the story as told (and re-told, with many variations) by Ali. Denzey Lewis and Blount argue that the codices may “just as plausibly be private productions commissioned by late ancient Egyptian Christians with antiquarian interests” and later deposited in graves (p. 400), perhaps even intentionally as funerary deposits, given their contents (p. 401). The same could be said of the early discoveries and certainly seems to be the case for the recently-published Codex Tchacos (which contains the Gospel of Judas and other texts), found in a family tomb in El-Minya, Egypt.
The students engaged well Denzey Lewis and Blount’s article, but felt that Jean Doresse’s original account of the find (villagers took him to a cemetery and they said some had found the texts there in a jar) could just as likely be incorrect, since these villagers may not have known the full story of the jar’s discovery. They reacted favorably to both articles’ call for critical re-evaluation of the “colonial meme” of the need to rescue texts from unenlightened peasants; as Goodacre states, “The narrative scarcely hides its moral, that important artifacts like this need to be wrested from the hands of those who cannot hope to understand them, and placed in the hands of the responsible, Western academics” (p. 305).
One student asked how these re-evaluations of the story of the discovery change our understanding of the material. I emphasized that the corpus previously was considered a collection made from several different libraries but the reasons for this compilation were mysterious (the dominant theory was that they were hidden away by Pachomian monks after Athanasius declared them heretical), as was why the texts were assembled in each individual codex; now it seems that they likely were found in a number of different tombs, and thus share affinities with the early discoveries and with Codex Panopolitanus (found in a monk’s grave in 1886/87 and containing portions of the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, 1 Enoch, and some psalms), and, most importantly, need to be separated from each other and evaluated as separate, smaller collections. At this statement, one student asked why Denzey Lewis, in her textbook, states that NHL Codex I is “un-Gnostic” (“there is nothing really heretical in this codex,” p. 6). It is an odd statement; the codex contains the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, the Apocryphon of James, the Gospel of Truth, the Treatise on the Resurrection, and the Tripartite Tractate—each of which certainly contain some unorthodox ideas, though perhaps not clearly Gnostic.
Denzey Lewis’s textbook was written before her article on rethinking the Nag Hammadi discovery. I wonder how she would change the contents of her chapter if given the chance to revise the book. It might even affect her decision to focus on the Nag Hammadi Library as a unified corpus. As she writes in chapter three: “What makes this textbook different from other books on NH is that it does not presume that the entire NHL is Gnostic. Many writings in it have nothing to do with the pursuit of gnosis; not all the ideas we find in it are Gnostic, either. So rather than imposing an inaccurate term on the various writings contained in the NHL, this book approaches the entire collection as a miscellany—a variety of Christina and non-Christian texts—some Gnostic and others not, which came together to represent a range of ancient voices” (p. 14). There are now additional reasons to pull away from reading these texts together, and if Denzey Lewis does not see much of the NHL as Gnostic, then why call the textbook Introduction to “Gnosticism” at all?
One student asked if our course was only going to discuss discoveries and wanted to know when we were going to read some texts. After our break, his desire for texts was met with a reading of the Hymn of the Pearl from the Acts of Thomas. The hymn serves as a gentle entry point into Gnostic ideas, which seem to be reflected in the text, though the orthodox Christians who transmitted the Acts of Thomas manuscripts also valued the hymn. We read through the text as a group and looked for aspects of Gnostic salvation in its tale of a young prince who leaves his kingdom in the East to find a treasure and return with it to his parents’ palace. Next week we will read another “gentle entry point”—Ptolemy’s Epistle to Flora—before wading deep into the Nag Hammadi texts.